March 14, 2013 / 8:43 PM / 7 years ago

Argentina's pope stood up to power, but has his critics

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina’s pope, Jorge Bergoglio, is a fearless critic of the powerful and a bold advocate of the poor, but some say he let down his country by staying silent during a “dirty war” dictatorship.

Then Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio blesses residents of the Villa 21-24 slum inside the Virgin of Caacupe chapel, in the Barracas neighborhood of Buenos Aires, in this December 8, 2012 file photo. Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who has become the first pope born outside Europe in 1,300 years, quietly left the Vatican early on March 14, 2013 barely 12 hours after his election to pray for guidance as he looks to usher a Roman Catholic Church mired in intrigue and scandal into a new age of simplicity and humility. Picture taken December 8, 2012. REUTERS/Ricardo Gomez

Links between some high-ranking Roman Catholic clergymen and the military regime that kidnapped and killed up to 30,000 leftists between 1976 and 1983 tarnished the Church’s reputation in Argentina and the wounds have yet to heal.

Critics of Bergoglio, the Jesuit former archbishop of Buenos Aires, say he failed to protect priests who challenged the dictatorship, and that he has said too little about the complicity of the Church during military rule.

That is reason enough for some human rights activists to question the moral credentials of Pope Francis, or Francisco as he will be known in the Spanish-speaking world.

“He has never said anything about the genocidal priests ... We’ve really never heard him say anything,” said Taty Almeida, one of the leaders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who marched for years before the presidential palace to demand information on their missing children.

Bergoglio’s harshest critics go much further.

“He turned priests in during the dictatorship,” said Horacio Verbitsky, a journalist and author close to President Cristina Fernandez, with whom Bergoglio has a prickly relationship.

According to Verbitsky’s book “The Silence,” Bergoglio withdrew his order’s protection of two Jesuit priests after they refused to quit visiting the slums, paving the way for their capture.

“I used to have the same opinion of him that most people have, of a humble, intelligent man dedicated to the poor ... but then I discovered everything that is contained in my books, in my research,” he added.

Verbitsky’s accusations, based on the testimony of one of the two Jesuits who were kidnapped, are controversial, however.

Bergoglio, who led the Jesuit order in Argentina at the time, gave evidence at a major human rights trial that he asked junta leaders Jorge Rafael Videla and Emilio Massera to free the two priests, who were kidnapped and held for five months. And defenders of the new pope say he helped many dissidents flee.

“What Bergoglio tried to do was help where he could,” said Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for defending human rights during the dictatorship

“It’s true that he didn’t do what very few bishops did in terms of defending the human rights cause, but it’s not right to accuse him of being an accomplice,” Perez Esquivel told Reuters. “Bergoglio never turned anyone in, neither was he an accomplice of the dictatorship.”


In more recent years, Bergoglio’s thinly veiled criticisms of those in power have been a constant of his leadership of Argentina’s Roman Catholics and his willingness to speak out has made him some enemies.

“He’s a real straight talker. He doesn’t beat around the bush, so to speak,” said Mercedes Zamuner, an assistant at a chapel where Bergoglio used to give Mass in Buenos Aires.

“When it’s been necessary, he’s said really tough things directed at certain quarters.”

At the height of a devastating economic crisis in 2001-02 that plunged millions into poverty, Bergoglio’s criticism of those in power was blunt.

Former President Eduardo Duhalde sat stony-faced as Bergoglio delivered an unusually harsh homily in 2002 as the crisis raged outside the cathedral gates.

“Let’s not tolerate the sad spectacle of those who no longer know how to lie and contradict themselves to hold onto their privileges, their rapaciousness, and their ill-earned wealth,” Bergoglio said in the televised sermon.

The former cardinal, the first Jesuit to become pope, was born into a large middle-class Buenos Aires family, his father an Italian immigrant railway worker and his mother a housewife.

People who know him say he shares two national passions - soccer and tango - and is endowed with the common touch, though he never worked in the ramshackle slums that encircle most of Argentina’s large cities.

“Bergoglio is willing to mingle with the people; he has washed the feet of AIDS sufferers, of pregnant women ... he blessed the trash collectors,” Eduardo de la Serna, an Argentine priest who works with the poor, told Pagina 12 newspaper.

In the run-of-the-mill Flores neighborhood where Bergoglio grew up, his former home has been knocked down, but he is well-known among neighbors who remember him from childhood.

“When we were 12 he wrote me a letter saying that if he didn’t marry me, he’d become a priest,” said Amalia Damonte, 76, a childhood friend and neighbor who still lives there.

At a nearby Church school where Bergoglio attended nursery and had his first communion, he played football on Sundays, a 90-year-old nun recalled.

Bergoglio’s passion for the game has continued and he is a card-carrying member of leading Buenos Aires team San Lorenzo, who are nicknamed The Saints.

“He says he lives in a permanent state of suffering for San Lorenzo,” said fellow fan Oscar Lucchini, although he added that Bergoglio did not attend games.

Known for traveling by bus and shunning the luxuries of high Church office, Bergoglio lived in a one-room apartment next to the cathedral and is said to wear worn-out shoes.

“When he arrives in Rome he takes the bus from the airport,” said Francesca Ambrogetti, who co-authored a biography of Bergoglio that was published in 2010 after carrying out a series of interviews with him over three years.

“On one occasion, a driver from the Argentine Embassy in the Vatican asked Bergoglio if he’d please let him drive him because if he didn’t he’d get told off,” she said.

“He showed us his office once. It was incredibly luxurious (but) he turned it into a store room and received people in a really simple office instead.”


Bergoglio has had a rocky relationship with Argentina’s left-leaning president, Cristina Fernandez, and her late husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner.

In the midst of a chaotic uprising by farmers in 2008, the Church infuriated Fernandez’s government with a call for “a noble gesture and constructive dialogue.”

It was not the first time Bergoglio was accused of taking sides by the Kirchners, whose idiosyncratic blend of leftist rhetoric, unorthodox economic policy and the championing of human rights has kept them in power since 2003.

Kirchner avoided Bergoglio by shunning a traditional Mass in Buenos Aires cathedral to mark an important national anniversary and has often directed harsh words toward the clergy.

“God is for everyone. But the Devil reaches everyone too - those of us who wear trousers and those of us who wear cassocks,” Kirchner said in 2006.

Bergoglio once complained that Kirchner “sees me as the head of the opposition, and I’m not a politician,” according to 2007 comments by Joaquin Pina, bishop emeritus of Puerto Iguazu in northern Argentina.

Bergoglio’s relationship with Fernandez hit a fresh low when Congress passed a law in 2010 making Argentina the first Latin American country to approve gay marriage.

Fernandez offered her congratulations to Bergoglio during a speech on Wednesday and is expected to attend his inaugural Mass next week.

The Kirchners are not the only ones to have found themselves on the wrong end of Bergoglio’s unflinching approach.

In 2011, after a long economic boom, he took aim at Buenos Aires’ city government over the persistent exploitation of illegal immigrants in clandestine sweatshops.

“This city has failed and continues to fail in freeing us of this structural slavery,” he said.

Some think Bergoglio’s bold approach will prove an asset as he takes the reins of a troubled Church shaken by scandal.

An admirer of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, Bergoglio must overcome crises caused by child abuse by priests and the leak of secret papal documents that uncovered corruption and rivalry inside the Church.

“You get the sense of someone who has the capacity to defend what needs to be defended with great intensity,” his biographer Ambrogetti said.


Bergoglio became a priest at 32, nearly a decade after losing the use of one lung due to respiratory illness and quitting his chemistry studies. Despite his late start, he was leading the local Jesuit community within four years, holding the post of provincial of the Argentine Jesuits from 1973 to 1979.

He then held several academic posts and pursued further study in Germany. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and archbishop in 1998.

A solemn man, deeply attached to centuries-old Roman Catholic traditions, he is not expected to stray far from Church doctrine on divisive matters of sexuality, divorce and abortion, but he is seen bringing a more pastoral touch.

“He has always stayed close to priests who got married. He even told us that he had married some (former) priests,” Ambrogetti said.

Bergoglio once branded priests who refuse to baptize children born outside marriage as “hypocrites.”

Argentina has not faced as many high-profile scandals of priests sexually abusing children, meaning Bergoglio has not been forced to take a public position on the issue like his peers in other countries.

“He mentioned that in cases of pedophile priests he considers it a perversion that predates ordination and that ‘you need to be very careful when choosing candidates for the priesthood,’” Ambrogetti said.

Almeida, from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, urged Bergoglio to make his position on abuse cases clear now that he is in the Vatican.

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“I really hope he now has the power in his hands to clarify and investigate these things,” she said, linking the sex abuse scandals to the Church’s role in the dirty war.

In Bergoglio’s former neighborhood in Buenos Aires, his childhood friend Damonte said she shared the high hopes of millions of Latin Americans celebrating the election of the region’s first pope.

“He is a good man, the son of a working-class family,” she said, standing on her flower-filled front porch. “I hope he can achieve all the good that he holds in his heart.”

Additional reporting by Guido Nejamkis, Alejandro Lifschitz and Jorge Otaola; Editing by Kieran Murray and Claudia Parsons

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